Following a lengthy chat about our respective health issues this week, a Muslim colleague of mine told me I was in her prayers. As an atheist, I appreciated the sentiment but found responding a bit awkward, so I just said thank you, and that she was in my prayers too, in a non-religious sort of a way. She laughed and said "I am always amazed that you're an atheist - you're so together. How is it that you don't need God?" This wasn't a challenge, it was a question borne of genuine curiosity, and one I never really got to answer as our legal rep appeared and started grumbling about IR35 legislation.
The question has played on my mind since though. The assertion that I am "together" aside (umm, nope), why is it I don't need God? I suspect the answer is pretty simple - I don't need God because I've never had Him (Her / Them) in my life. God has never been who I turn to in a crisis. It wouldn't occur to me to seek his reassurance, blessing or guidance, and my moral compass has never been calibrated by the Lord. My fellow humans, my instincts and the rules of the society I live in do these things, as do the principles of fairness, equality, acceptance and compassion by which my parents raised me. I still need a structure of values, but for me, this doesn't come from religion.
Not needing God doesn't make me superior, or more intelligent, or more "together". It's just the way it is. I was raised an atheist, and am lucky to have a support network around me that means I have never had to turn to a deity for solace. I can completely see why other more pious souls may be concerned for me, or worry that my heathen ways mean I might lack focus or purpose, or indeed that I need redeeming pronto to avoid an afterlife of eternal fiery torment. Just as I can't imagine living with God, if you do have him in your life, it must be very hard to understand how anyone could live without him. He is woven into the fabric of your existence and underpins your sense of self. If I'm honest, there are times, when things are very bad, when I wish I did have someone to pray to, so I could feel like I was doing something proactive to change my circumstances. But I could never really bring myself to pray seriously, because I know in my core that no-one is listening, and, even if they were, it seems unlikely that they would answer the prayers of someone who has so vocally denounced them as a mere fairy story her whole life.
So I talk to my family, I talk to my friends, and I do everything in my power to make things better by myself. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, just like prayers are sometimes answered and sometimes they are not. And while I would like more certainty and control at times, mostly I'm OK because I know that life is essentially chaotic and random and there is nothing I, or any other person on this planet can do to change that. When we've done our best and things don't work out, well then that's just how it is. It's oddly reassuring to know that it's not God's will or his punishment, just as good things happening aren't his reward. I don't have to feel guilty (unless of course I have done something wrong) or let down, or tested, or wonder why this was in God's design - I can just say "shit happens" and after I've processed and healed, I can move on. In theory at least...
So I don't need God, but that doesn't mean I don't need the compassion, beauty, wisdom or love that he brings so many - I just seek these things down here on Earth, in science, nature and other people. And I don't consider myself superior for not believing (unlike some outspoken atheists) because, despite all the logic and evidence that God does not exist, religion is fundamentally about faith, not evidence, and I cannot say for sure that I would be an atheist now if I had been brought up with God in my life. I understand why so many do need him and if he brings them comfort and clarity and makes them a better person, then who am I to question on denigrate that? Of course if God provides them with an excuse to harm, exploit or shun their fellow humans, then that's a whole other matter. But that's a post for another day.